By Erik Kirschbaum
BERLIN, Aug 21 (Reuters) - Two German ships set off on Friday on the first journey across Russia’s Arctic-facing northern shore without the help of icebreakers after climate change helped opened the passage, the company said.
Niels Stolberg, president and CEO of Beluga Shipping GmbH, said the "Beluga Fraternity" and "Beluga Foresight" left the Russian port of Vladivostok on the historic and cost-saving journey with cargo picked up in South Korea bound for Holland.
The melting of Arctic ice as a result of climate change has made it possible to send Beluga’s multi-purpose heavy lift ships along the legendary Northeast Passage, Stolberg said.
Beluga got Russian authorities’ clearance to send the first non-Russian commercial vessels through the route on Friday.
The Northern Sea Route trims 4,000 nautical miles (7,400 km) off the usual 11,000-mile journey via the Suez Canal -- yielding considerable savings in fuel costs and CO2 emissions, he said.
"Russian submarines and icebreakers have used the Northern Route in the past but it wasn’t open for regular commercial shipping before now because there are many areas with thick ice," Stolberg told Reuters in an email interview.
"It was only last summer that satellite pictures revealed that the ice is melting and a small corridor opened which could enable commercial shipping through the Northeast Passage -- if all the circumstances were right and the requirements were met."
Stolberg said Beluga was eager to send ships through the northern route last summer during a six- to eight-week "window" in August and September when temperatures in the region rise to 20 degrees Celsius or more to open a corridor in the ice.
But they were unable to get the approvals needed from Russian authorities before the window closed in September.
"The permission process wasn’t finished when we needed it so we used the additional year for more intense planning," he said.
Stolberg’s company has already drawn attention for coming up with innovative answers to climate change. It has been using a giant towing kite system on some of its vessels to harness wind energy -- to cut fuel costs and CO2 emissions.
"Global warming is obviously a development with negative effects. However the melting ice in the Northeast Passage and the possibility to transit through it has positive effects, too. Shipping companies can cut bunker consumption and reduce CO2 as well as other emissions."
(Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton)